Helen’s Journey

by James R. Stratton

 

Helen slammed open the front door, dropped her purse and shoes on the floor, and wiggled her toes in thick carpet soft as a kitten’s fur. Today, she felt its touch like a sensuous caress. A surprise! They’d waited so long! She glanced around the room grinning.

“Sam! Sam, where are you?” A paint-spattered young man walked up the hall opposite her with a wet brush in his hand. Helen smiled. “Guess what?”

Sam just smiled back and shook his head.

“I just come from Dr. Bloomberg’s. We’re gonna have a baby!”

She laughed as Sam’s mouth dropped open, and her joy broke free. Shouting, she skipped across the room, grabbed his neck and scissored her legs around his waist. Sam whirled her around and around. He was warm and moist from working, so she snuggled close and licked a bit of saltiness from his neck.

“My god, that’s wonderful!” Sam whispered. “I can’t believe we are finally going to be parents. Is it going to be a boy or a girl?”

Helen released her grip and slid away. “I wouldn’t sign for any of them tests.”

She tensed but wouldn’t meet his gaze. He’d have just confused her if she argued and her mind was made up.

“Honey, you know he’ll have to make a report to the State. We don’t want that kind of trouble. Besides, the doctors can help if there’s a problem.”

“Not always!” she said, louder than she intended. “You know my momma lost three babies before she had me. And my sister had one taken by the State before the third month just last year. It’s taken me eight years to get pregnant. What if they want to take this one? No way! We’re gonna have this baby no matter what!”

She glared at him until he looked away and felt bad at once. He just wanted her happy. Stepping closer, she clasped his hand. “Come on, this’ll be a good thing. You’ll see. And don’t worry about Dr. Bloomberg. He’s an old fashion doc who never liked all them rules. He promised not to say a thing.” Sam just grunted and turned away.

She frowned at his back, then grinned. The muscles in his butt bunched and shifted under his thin shorts. She loved the look of his behind, the feel of it in her hands when they made love. She tiptoed up behind him and slid both hands into his shorts. “Guess what I’m in the mood for?”

“Hey, come on!” Sam laughed and rose on his toes. “I’m all covered with paint.”

“So? You better get it while you can. I may not be in the mood much once I’m big and fat.”

*****

“Mrs. Borland? Are you awake?”

She opened her eyes to find a tall, red-haired woman in a blue blazer standing by her bed.

“I’m Susan Smith-Johnson, a social worker with the Division of Child Protective Services. Has the doctor talked to you about your son’s problems?”

Helen nodded and squeezed her eyes against the tears. This was going to be the happiest moment of her life. She’d dreamed of this day. Just moments ago she was lying motionless in the bed, drinking in the feel of her son—wet and warm, squirming on her breast—and inhaling his sweet-sour baby smell.

But the bright joy had chopped off when Dr. Bloomberg and the nurses crowded around. “Jesus, he’s defective,” one whispered. Dr. Bloomberg seized Josh and ran from the room. A numbness had whispered through her, dulling her senses and clouding her thoughts.

Helen opened her eyes and stared at the social worker. She rubbed at the tightness in her belly. Nothing was going as she’d dreamed and now it was turning into a nightmare.

“Mrs. Borland, the Division was contacted because of the unusual circumstances of your son’s birth. Children being born with handicaps are very rare these days. Children with multiple handicaps like Joshua are unheard of. This is an issue of grave concern to the State.”

Needle-pricks whispered across her chest. “Where’s my husband? I want Sam here before I talk.”

“He’s speaking with my assistant, Mr. Philip.” Ms. Smith-Johnson held up a thick folder. “I’ve reviewed your medical file. You refused all prenatal testing during your pregnancy against your doctor’s advice. Is that correct?”

She thought of denying everything, playing dumb. Anger at this woman snooping into her records bubbled nearby. No matter, the lady already knew. Helen’s head barely moved when she nodded. “What’s that got to do with you?”

Ms. Smith-Johnson glanced over the paper in her hand. “The Division is charged by statute with the duty of investigating whenever a parent doesn’t provide adequate care for a child. In Joshua’s case, that would include any necessary medical care.”

Helen thrust herself up. “It’s none of the State’s damn business. Sam and I will see to Joshua’s needs, handicapped or not.”

The social worker shook her head. “It’s too late for that. You’ve already deprived him of certain critical care.”

“What are you talking about?” Helen asked. “Josh was just born.”

Ms. Smith-Johnson stared before speaking. “Surely you know the law? Legally, Joshua was a separate individual since the end of the first trimester of your pregnancy. He was a life-in-being with all the rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. When you refused the normal prenatal tests, you acted contrary to Joshua’s interests.”

Helen lay back and stared at the woman. “It’s my body. I have the right to say no if I want.”

“Perhaps.”

Helen could see that concession came reluctantly.

“Your doctor should have reported your refusal months ago when we could have done something for Joshua.” Ms. Johnson-Smith smiled briefly. “I’ll be filing a formal complaint against Dr. Bloomberg with the state medical board.”

Helen shivered. Damn! Dr. Bloomberg was in trouble because of her? “What good would the tests have done, anyway? Maybe they could have done something about the heart valve thing, but they can’t cure Down’s Syndrome. They’d have to take the baby. I won’t allow it.”

“Allow it! That’s exactly the problem here.” Ms. Smith-Johnson stared. “Joshua is not your personal property to be done with as you see fit. The Supreme Court ruled years ago in the Kevorkian Society cases that everybody has a fundamental right to self-determination of life. That includes pre-born citizens like Joshua. He should have had a guardian ad litem appointed to act for him and a decision made on his behalf on his future. You’ve robbed him of that choice.”

Helen hid a small smile behind her hand. You didn’t know and now it’s too late. Josh is mine! She turned away and stared at the opposite wall.

“So what do you and your husband plan to do? Joshua is going to have a lot of special needs.”

Helen shook her head without looking back. “I don’t know. Sam and I haven’t had a chance to talk. I suppose there are programs for kids like Josh.” Helen glanced back when Ms. Smith-Johnson laughed.

“There were programs like that back when you were born. But that was when there were tens of thousands of handicapped children born each year. Last year there were 121 children born in the United States with a classified handicap. Funding for those kinds of programs ended ten years ago. There just isn’t a need. Federal and State money today goes to prenatal testing and in utero treatment.”

“So? Sam and I don’t have a lot of money. We can’t give him stuff we can’t afford.” Helen felt the cold pricks of fear again.

Ms. Smith-Johnson stepped closer to the side of the bed. “The State still operates a residential facility at Woodburn for special needs citizens like Joshua. It’s staffed with specialists in the medical and mental health fields. All of Joshua’s needs could be met there. Of course, you and your husband would have to surrender custody to the State.”

“What!” Helen gasped. “My baby isn’t a day old and you want to take him? So you can send him to an orphanage? Are you crazy or just stupid? If he needs any help, you can give it to him in my home.”

Ms. Smith-Johnson shook her head. “There are only ten clients at Woodburn, all with severe handicaps like Joshua’s. The cost of operating a program like that with our clients scattered across the State would be prohibitive. Joshua will get the best care available in the State there. And you and your husband would be entitled to liberal visitation.”

Helen shook her head violently. “No! I won’t give him up. I’m his momma, for Christ’s sake. Now go away. Sam and I can take care of Josh without your help, if needs be.”

Ms. Smith-Johnson slid a business card onto the nightstand, then walked to the door. “As the parents, you and your husband have the right to custody of Joshua so long as you provide for his needs. But the Division will be opening a case and a worker will be visiting regularly. I think you’ll want to reconsider once you understand what’s involved in caring for a child like Joshua. My number is on the card.”

The social worker pushed through the swinging door to the room. Helen glared at the door. The State can stick it! Josh was her baby. They had no right.

*****

Helen jerked awake when Joshua patted her arm. She gazed around the living room to get her bearings. Across the room the television murmured softly. Her eyes began to water from the bright sunlight slanting through the living room blinds.

After a minute, Joshua began to whine and tug at her arm. “Easy, Josh. Mommy will get breakfast in a minute. She doesn’t feel well.” Helen glanced down at her son. Softly, he began to chant, “Da-da-da-da-da.”

“No, honey. You don’t go to see Daddy until Friday.” Josh just chanted louder.

Sam, you bastard. You couldn’t even stick it out six months.

But it had been worse for him than her. She had to endure the stares and whispers from the playground moms when she took Josh out. God, they were witches! They’d treated Josh like he had a disease, and asked her right to her face why she’d let Josh be born this way. But that was okay. Josh was a joy, so being alone wasn’t so bad.

But Sam had come home from work day after day angry and sad. His co-workers had asked over and over how he could allow it, why he hadn’t done something. And then he’d come home one day seething. The promotion Sam had been counting on had gone to another guy, the fellow Sam had trained. His boss had told him privately he wasn’t likely to ever get another promotion. There was too much talk about him and his freak baby.

“I don’t have a life anymore! I work two jobs but I can’t make ends meet. We spend everything on doctors for Josh. The neighbors won’t talk to us and the people at work think we’re sick. I can’t live like this! I can’t go on with nothing to look forward to but this day after day. Maybe we should talk to that social worker about the home, at least for a while.”

She snatched Josh up and backed away. “No! Never! How will we get him back if they get him? We can’t afford the fancy treatments they have. They’d keep him forever.”

Sam clutched the air in front of her as his face twisted. “Honey, please. We’ve got to do something. We don’t have a life anymore, you and I. And I’m wrung out.”

She’d screamed and pleaded and Sam had backed away. But two weeks later he packed his bags and moved out. The divorce papers had arrived months later.

Helen sat on the sofa as tears burned in her eyes. “You shouldn’t have given up. This is our boy, we would have gotten through it somehow.” Helen welcomed the phone’s chirp, something to distract her.

“Did I have an appointment yesterday?… I know Josh needs to see his heart doctor regular… Look, I’m sorry, I thought it was next week!… Well, when can we reschedule?… What do you mean it doesn’t matter?… Hello? Hello?”

She was calling the doctor’s office back when someone hammered on the door. Josh jerked and squealed as Helen padded to the door. Glancing in the mirror at the entrance she shook her head. “Be quiet, Josh. Maybe they’ll go away. We aren’t ready for company this morning.”

The door shuddered under another series of blows and Josh squealed. A deep voice called out, “Mrs. Borland, this is Officer Frankel speaking. We can hear you moving around in there. Open the door. I have a court order I have to serve on you.”

Her heart pounded as the man’s words sank in. Setting Josh on the floor, she opened the door a crack and peered out at the people waiting in the dark hall. None of the lights on the landing worked so she could only make out shadowy forms.

A tall policeman stepped into the light from the door holding up a piece of paper. She glanced at it. “Okay, I see it. What’s this about?”

“This is an order from the Family Court directing us to take custody of your son, Joshua. Open the door and step back.”

“You can go to hell!” she shouted and slammed the door. Before she could turn the lock the door surged back, throwing her against the wall.

She felt time slow. Pinned against the wall by the door, she stared at the policeman as he was striding toward her. His lips were pulled back from his teeth in a feral grin. Behind him stood a beefy policewoman pulling at the nightstick on her belt. Just at the edge of the light from the door stood another person, Susan Smith-Johnson from the Division of Child Protective Services.

The two officers grabbed Helen and slammed her down on the floor, writhing and screaming as they knelt on her back. Ms. Smith-Johnson stepped over her and gathered up Josh. As the woman disappeared into the darkness of the hallway, Joshua shrieked in her arms. Helen only heard some of the things the officer read from the paper.

“By order of the Family Court of the State of Delaware… based on the petition for emergency custody filed by the Division of Child… allegations of willful neglect of the minor child, Joshua, including but not limited to failure to provided essential medical care… gives this Court sufficient reason to believe that the health and safety of this child is at risk. Ex parte emergency custody is hereby awarded to the Division until further hearings can be held.”

The officer laid the paper on the floor and backed away.

*****

Ms. Smith-Johnson sat rigid at her desk with her phone pressed to her ear. “Officer, this is an emergency! A child has been kidnaped and is in terrible danger… No, the kidnaper is his mother, Helen Borland. Joshua is in State custody. His mother had visitation at Woodburn today. They left the grounds several hours ago without the staff realizing it… Yes, we’re sure she’s gone. I sent a social worker to her apartment. It’s empty. Clothing, furniture, everything is gone… No, I don’t think she’ll harm him intentionally. But Joshua has very serious health problems. He just started drug therapy for a mental handicap. Stopping the medication suddenly could be dangerous. Thank you. I’ll fax you a photo of Joshua immediately… Yes, I’ll hold the line.”

*****

Helen clutched the edge of the mahogany table, the defendant’s table in the courtroom. She glanced at the tall woman seated next to her. Her court-appointed attorney had met briefly with her to discuss the case.

“I recommend you consent to the order and avoid a trial. You really don’t understand how serious this is. You have a lot to lose here beyond Josh. Hell, the prosecutor is talking about a felony charge for kidnaping.”

Helen just shook her head. If she opened her mouth she would just start yelling. She couldn’t lose it now. The doctors the State had sent her to had given her pills to help stay calm. Helen smiled, then shook her head. No way I’m going to give him up. He’s my boy.

The bailiff walked past Helen to a door next to the bench. He rapped twice and opened the door a crack. After nodding to someone inside, he stepped forward and shouted, “Hear ye, Hear ye! The Family Court of the State of Delaware in and for Kent County is now in session, this fourteenth day of June 2027. The Honorable Susan B. Attmore is presiding.”

Behind the bailiff, a short, heavy-set black woman strode through the door, mounted the steps to the bench and sat. Judge Attmore examined Helen and her attorney then glanced at the other table where the prosecutor and Ms. Smith-Johnson sat. “Counselor, do you want to tell me what this case is about?”

The prosecutor stood. “Certainly, your honor. We are here on the petition of the Division of Child Protective Services to terminate the parental rights of the defendant, Helen Borland, to the minor child, Joshua Borland. I note that the father of Joshua, Samuel Borland, has signed a waiver and consent, and has filed the appropriate medical certificate. He will not be appearing today.”

The judge nodded and scribbled briefly. “The social report filed with the petition doesn’t mention any plan for Joshua to be adopted. What is the Division’s goal in this case?”

“Adoption is not an option for this child,” the lawyer replied. “Joshua was born with severe multiple handicaps. He is not a good candidate for adoptive placement. The Division’s plan for Joshua is long-term foster care at the State-run facility at Woodburn.”

Turning to stare at Helen, the prosecutor added, “I recognize it’s unusual to seek termination when there’s no plans for an adoption, but the Division feels compelled by the ongoing, willful neglect Josh suffered while in his mother’s care. In fact, we will prove that this abuse predates the child’s birth and caused him to be born with his handicaps. This petition is being filed to prevent any further abuse to this child, not to free him for adoption. For this reason, the Division also is seeking an order from this Court for Mrs. Borland’s involuntary sterilization.”

The judge looked up. “This is a procreation rights case? I didn’t see that in the petition.”

The prosecutor leafed through a file in front of him. “You’ll find that on page seven.”

The judge frowned as she riffled papers in front of her, then nodded. “I have it. Proceed.”

“The Division is prepared to prove that Helen Borland willfully failed to provide proper care for her son, Joshua. This intentional neglect even predates the child’s birth on March 15, 2023. The evidence will show that Mrs. Borland knowingly rejected certain medical tests that would have permitted Joshua, through a guardian ad litem appointed by this Court, to make a decision on his life. When she refused these medical procedures, she deprived her son of his fundamental right to make choices on the nature of his existence.”

The lawyer’s voice became a vague droning in Helen’s ears as her gaze slid down the front of the bench to the rug. God in heaven. They were really going to do it.

*****

“Mrs. Borland? Mrs. Borland!”

Helen glanced up to find the judge staring at her from the bench.

“Mrs. Borland, I would advise you to pay attention.”

Helen nodded, then dropped her gaze down to the floor.

“After the testimony offered by the Division’s witnesses, this Court has no choice but to grant the Division’s petition here. The evidence of willful abuse is overwhelming. You refused all prenatal screening for Joshua, depriving him of his right of self-determination. The Court is especially disturbed by the evidence that you conspired with a Doctor Bloomberg to prevent timely notification to the State. You then refused all assistance from the State through its inpatient facility at Woodburn, while failing to obtain the services yourself. When the State took emergency custody, your son was not receiving treatment for his heart defect and was not in therapy for his mental handicap. Worse, you absconded with Joshua from his treatment facility. You placed Joshua at imminent risk of harm solely for selfish reasons.” Helen looked away and closed her eyes.

The judge paused until Helen looked back. “I will say this once, although I doubt you’ll accept it. Your son has certain basic rights. He is entitled by law to a decent home, adequate care for his needs, and a right of self-determination. You’ve deprived him of those rights even prior to his birth and have sabotaged all the efforts made by the State for Josh. You brought this child into the world under circumstances where you could not take care of him and would not allow the State to do so. There is no excuse for that.”

The judge paused at stared into Helen’s eyes. “Josh is not your property. He’s a free citizen with the same rights as you. And if you won’t care for him, you have no right to his care and custody.

“Your actions convince this Court that you are unfit to parent this child or any other. The Division’s petition as to Joshua will be granted. For the same reason, I will see to it that this never happens again. The Division’s request for an order of involuntary sterilization will be granted as well.”

Helen jerked when she heard someone moving behind her. She turned to find the bailiff and a policewoman standing beside her chair. The policewoman grasped her shoulder.

“I note for the record that Mr. Borland earlier signed a consent to this order and has filed the necessary medical certificate proving his sterilization. No further action against him is ordered.”

Helen felt the screams bubbling up again from deep within. She pushed it down with raw force. She’d gotten good at that. The doctors had given her pills to take care of the panic and fear, but Helen had hid them instead. They’ll put me someplace quiet tonight. I just need a few minutes to swallow all of them and this’ll all be over. She breathed deep to settle herself and relaxed.

“This is so ordered, this 27th day of June, 2027.”

 

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